Italy - U.S.A. | 2007
Directed by Dario Argento
Asia Argento
Cristian Solimeno
Adam James
| 102 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Dimension Films/Genius Products
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Review by
Brian Lindsey

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
    As a longtime fan of director Dario Argento I fully intended to review this film a year ago, when the DVD was released. But watching it left me so utterly dispirited that I just couldn't motivate myself to sit down and write, even though negative reviews are always the easiest for me. The sense of crushed expectations was simply too powerful, too oppressive.
    I'd been intensely eager to see it ever since reading in 2006 that the Italian horror maestro would actually be making the third chapter in his long-proposed "Three Mothers" trilogy, which began with 1977's masterful Suspiria in my opinion perhaps the greatest supernatural horror film ever made in color and continued with Inferno (1980). At the time I could never have imagined just how shockingly bad Mother of Tears would turn out to be. So bad, in fact, that I just wanted to put the travesty of it out of my mind. (Thus no review last year.) However, a recent viewing of a high-definition HBO broadcast of the film spurred me to give it another go.
    Well, the movie's still a bloody mess.
    Asia Argento (the director's daughter, star of his 1996 psychological thriller The Stendhal Syndrome) plays Sarah Mandy, an art restorer living in Rome. One night she and a colleague (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Opera) are working at the Museum of Ancient Art when a strange box, recently unearthed by workmen digging outside the walls of an old cemetery, arrives for examination. Intrigued by the cryptic symbols decorating the box, the women decide not to wait for the curator’s approval and open it. Inside are occult artifacts a ceremonial dagger, demonic statuettes, a red tunic all immensely old. Only moments after Sarah leaves the room to fetch a reference book her friend is savagely attacked and slaughtered by shadowy figures that appear out of nowhere, commanded by a sinister, malefic monkey.
    Barely escaping alive, Sarah calls the police to the scene but they’re flummoxed by the bizarre nature of the crime, proving to be of little help. The mysterious box, along with its contents, is gone. And someone, for reasons unknown, wants Sarah dead. Running for her life, she begins a quest for knowledge that puts her in contact with a famed exorcist (Udo Kier, hamming it up with gusto), a lesbian medium (Valeria Cavalli) and a wizened alchemist (Phillipe Leroy), each of whom provides keys to the puzzle. Sarah learns that the box contained magical talismans of the dreaded Mater Lachrymarum the "Mother of Tears", one of three powerful witches who in olden days spread misery, pestilence and death in their wake. As an inexplicable wave of murder and mayhem grips Rome with growing intensity, our heroine realizes that she must find and confront the Mother of Tears before the witch's evil influence engulfs the entire world.
    Let me state up front that I'm not ragging on Mother because it jettisons the stunning visual aesthetic for which Suspiria and Inferno are so renowned. The film looks nothing like the first two installments in the trilogy; there is no candy-colored gel lighting or bizarre architecture to dazzle the eye and conjure mood and atmosphere. I can fully understand why some Argento fans might be disappointed by this the shoes don't match the blouse and skirt, as it were but my attitude is different. Suspiria and Inferno are about normal people discovering and entering a weird supernatural realm, whereas Mother is concerned with a supernatural force escaping out into the real world. In this context the more realistic look of the film is, I believe, entirely appropriate. (And sometimes one can't win for losing… Had Argento shot Mother in the same baroque style he would've probably been criticized for repeating himself.) The musical score, too, plays much less of an integral role here than in the first two films. Provided in this case by Goblin alumnus Claudio Simonetti, it's not particularly memorable but serviceable to the task.
    My problems with Mother stem from just about everything else... The story is tediously episodic: Sarah seeks out an expert to get information about what's happening, learns a tidbit or two, the expert is brutally killed, and then she's off again to another expert. (Rinse, repeat.) It's conspicuously obvious that there wasn't enough money in the budget to properly depict the city descending into chaos. I don't expect ironclad logic in an Argento film, but some of the characters' actions are so unbelievably stupid it's maddening. (The corker: When told that the murderous cult could be tracking her movements electronically, Sarah throws away her cell phone. She then goes home to her own apartment.) A key prop, Mater Lachrymarum's magic tunic (supposedly medieval in origin), looks like a raggedy T-shirt tricked out with dime store glitter applied with a glue gun. The witches who converge on Rome to celebrate the Mater's impending triumph are ridiculous, like drunken Goth chicks at a Halloween pub crawl. Their object of worship, the Mater herself (Israeli actress/model Moran Atias), would seem more at home working the pole and doing lap dances at the Itchy Kitty than unleashing an apocalypse from the catacombs beneath the Eternal City. And with her wildly uneven performance — effective in one scene, positively cringe-worthy the next — Asia simply isn't up to carrying the film. Her scenes with the ghostly apparition of Sarah's deceased mother (Asia's real-life mom Daria Nicolodi, who floats around via poor FX offering aid and encouragement) are nothing short of laughable.
    If Papa Dario accomplished anything of note with Mother of Tears, it was in realizing the most viciously brutal murders of his oeuvre to date. Yet herein lies another problem... Some of the murder sequences are dragged out to such absurd lengths that they become unintentionally funny, in an almost Monty Pythonesque way. The over-the-top killing of Cataldi-Tassoni's character in the museum — in addition to having her face destroyed, she's stabbed, sliced open and strangled with her own intestines — is the prime example of this. Excising a few seconds of this goofy overkill, the R-rated theatrical cut (which I watched on HBO) actually works better.
    Because I'm an Argento admirer it pains me to say this: Shorn of ultra-violence and nudity, much of Mother of Tears would play like some crappy made-for-SyFy Channel movie. There are a few flashes of the old master in evidence — notably in a long, single take that follows Sarah as she explores the Mater's villa — but they're few and far between. At this point he might need to just call it quits and rest on his well-deserved laurels.

No complaints about the DVD, at least. Both the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and its Dolby 5.1 audio track (English only) are absolutely topnotch. In addition to the U.S. theatrical and Italian teaser trailers there are two featurettes on hand. In A Conversation with Legendary Filmmaker Dario Argento (8 min.) the director, speaking English, offers his thoughts on returning to the Three Mothers story after nearly 30 years; The Making of Mother of Tears (33 min.) is mainly of the puff piece variety but will still interest Argento fans for its behind-the-scenes glimpses of him at work on the production. (Looking happy and relaxed, he obviously had a good time making the film.) 9/19/09